Book 16: Factory Girls

Courtesy of Goodreads

Title: Factory Girls, From Village to City in a Changing China

Author: Leslie T. Chang

Genre: Non-fiction, China, History, Biography, Sociology

Summary: What Goodreads say

“An eye-opening and previously untold story, Factory Girls is the first look into the everyday lives of the migrant factory population in China.

China has 130 million migrant workers—the largest migration in human history. In Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang, a former correspondent for theWall Street Journal in Beijing, tells the story of these workers primarily through the lives of two young women, whom she follows over the course of three years as they attempt to rise from the assembly lines of Dongguan, an industrial city in China’s Pearl River Delta.

As she tracks their lives, Chang paints a never-before-seen picture of migrant life—a world where nearly everyone is under thirty; where you can lose your boyfriend and your friends with the loss of a mobile phone; where a few computer or English lessons can catapult you into a completely different social class. Chang takes us inside a sneaker factory so large that it has its own hospital, movie theater, and fire department; to posh karaoke bars that are fronts for prostitution; to makeshift English classes where students shave their heads in monklike devotion and sit day after day in front of machines watching English words flash by; and back to a farming village for the Chinese New Year, revealing the poverty and idleness of rural life that drive young girls to leave home in the first place. Throughout this riveting portrait, Chang also interweaves the story of her own family’s migrations, within China and to the West, providing historical and personal frames of reference for her investigation.

A book of global significance that provides new insight into China,Factory Girls demonstrates how the mass movement from rural villages to cities is remaking individual lives and transforming Chinese society, much as immigration to America’s shores remade our own country a century ago.”

Edition: Spiegel & Grau , 2009 Paperback, 431 Pages

Eaten Thru: August 24, 2014


There is something great in such a human story. I study international relations and I’ve studied China for a few years now. I know what all the numbers and statistics say about that country. I’ve lived there and witnessed it firsthand. But it’s one thing to say that it is home to the biggest human migration in history and something completely different once you get down to the individual level, which is so often bypassed, especially in a country that champions collectivism and the power of the masses (ironic in light of its autocratic political system), and puts little to no value on the individual.

Chang puts on the pages honest stories, no spin, no heavy political leanings, and no detail too small to record. I very much enjoyed her interweaving her own family history into the mix. It brings home just how personal and intimate this book is. All the cultural nuances and personal anecdotes, it made me shake my head and chuckle, laugh out loud at times. Ultimately they chased away the loneliness I sometimes harbour around some of my own strange beliefs and values that do not fit with the environment and culture I live in.

I am a million miles away from these migrant girls in the book, physically and financially. I never had to toil one day in my whole life in a factory, on an assembly line, or live in a 8-person dorm room. By all appearances, I shouldn’t relate to their realities. But I do, very much so. I was so taken by Chunming and Min and all the girls that were scattered across those 400 pages. I sympathized with their struggles, their migration, and their rural roots. But above all, I empathized with their stories, their worries that are so painfully Chinese at times, their girlish quirks, their dreams of love and marriage, their despair and their hopes. It was all so deeply human.

If you think there is nothing for you in this book, if you have absolutely zero interest in China, all the more reason to pick it up and at least give the first few pages a shot. It may be a book about rural migrant women in the megacities of China, every aspect of which might be a million miles away from where you are and where you’ve been in life, but when you make that connection to these girls, when you begin to empathize, it makes it all the more transforming. Our ability to imagine and to empathize, and our capacity for compassion and understanding, how extraordinarily human! No matter how different our circumstances, our cultures, our lives, our worlds are, there is always that one factor which intertwines us all and makes all of our stories connect.

Favourite Passages:

“The stories of migrant women shared certain features. The arrival in the city was blurry and confused and often involved being tricked in some way…it was easy to lose yourself in the factory, where there were hundreds of girls with identical backgrounds: born in the village, badly educated, and poor. You had to believe that you mattered even though you were one among millions.” Page 55

Square and Round was a perversion of an American self-help book. It did not urge people to discover themselves, or to be honest about their failings and in their relationships. It did not try to change its readers. Instead it taught them how to do better what they already knew so well: pettiness, materialism, envy, competition, flattery, and subterfuge…Square and Round was essentially a point-by-point rejection of the virtues Chinese tradition had preached for two thousand years.” Page 196-198

“He preferred to talk about them in parts: their eyeballs, their hands, their brains. But people as a whole did not make sense to him. They were inefficient…people basically didn’t work–it was as if their creator had used first-rate parts but then botched the assembly.” Page 264

“As people entered the main concourse, they instinctively broke into a run: being Chinese has conditioned them to know that there will never be enough of anything.” Page 275

“Nobody on earth generates trash faster than the traveling Chinese.”

“On that last winter night, when armed men boarded his train and stabbed him with bayonets, all that learning and effort was rendered useless. It had been the crudest type of force: against such weapons, a man’s idealism meant nothing.” Page 382.

Final Verdict: 4/5

Recommended For: Anyone who likes a human story and of course, anyone with an interest in the intricacies of the transformation that is taking China by storm.

Next Target: The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick


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